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TIPS AND TECHNIQUES FOR WILDLIFE PHOTOGRAPHY
By Vandit Kalia
April 2004

In my earlier article on equipment for wildlife photography, I emphasized the importance of gear when it comes to wildlife equipment. Gear is indeed important, but only if you have the technique to utilize that gear to its fullest... and technique only becomes meaningful if you have a vision of what you want to achieve. As with every other branch of photography, skills play a bigger role than gear (a fact that often seems to be forgotten these days).

Before we get into the nitty-gritty of techniques, let's talk about vision for a second. After all the fancy mumbo-jumbo is stripped off, vision means having a sense of what your final image is going to be like before you take your shot. When you are starting out, the typical shots you would visualize include clean portaits shots of the animal, close-ups of key features and such. As you advance in experience and ability, your vision is limited only by your own imagination. Techniques then come into play as a way for you to achieve your vision.

Now, a lot of people are under the impression that wildlife photography simply means going out to a game park or sanctuary, and shooting whatever shows itself. If you are lucky, you get to see something exciting - if not, too bad, that's luck. Well folks, nothing could be further from the truth. Luck is good only for one or two good wildlife shots. If you consistently want to get great wildlife shots, you make your own luck. How? Visualization meets preparation and patience. Preparation means knowledge of your subject and its environment and patience means spending hours - or days or even weeks - to get that one shot that you've visualized.

If you are willing to put in this effort, you are on your way to getting great wildlife photos. The following is a list of tips and techniques that will help improve your wildlife photography. These are neither exhaustive, nor universal - try them out for yourself and use them as a starting point to find your own style.

  • Know your subject: Knowledge of animal behavior tells you a lot of things: where to find your subject, what sort of behaviors to expect, what some compelling images might be and how to recognize whether or not something interesting is about to happen. For example, if you know that lions spend most of the day sleeping, you know you are not likely to get an action shot of a lion at mid-day. You might be better of looking for another subject.
  • Have a passion for wildife: The best wildlife photos come from people who not only understand animal behavior, but are passionate about observing the animal. Having this passion will make the hours of waiting a reward, rather than a chore - and will result in more inspired images. If you really perceive a zebra as a beautiful, graceful animal, you are more likely to create a striking image of a zebra than someone who just sees it as a painted donkey.
  • Know your equipment: Here is a test: can you pick up your camera and change exposure settings or foucs points without lowering the camera from your eye? Can you change a roll of film blindfolded or within 15 seconds? Do you know how to change flash compensation, set exposure bracketing or change your metering modes without fumbling around (or preferably without lowering the camera from your eye)? Can you manage all your camera's field operations without needing the operating manual? If the answer to any of these questions is no, you don't know your equipment. That can cost you vital moments in the field. Action, when it does happen, is rapid and short - it is hard enough to react in time as is, without having to worry about figuring out how your camera operates.
  • Know what you want the image to say: Ask yourself - what am I trying to capture with this photograph or what do I want this photo to say? The most common wildlife photograph is a mere record shot - it says "we saw a lion. See, here's a photo" - and there is a photo of a lion in really harsh light, sleeping. That may be fine as snapshots go, but if you want better, you'll have to work harder. Simply pointing and shooting ain't gonna get you a good wildlife photo. Ask yourself what message you want your image to convey. Is it an animal portrait? Does it show the subject's identifying characteristics, or its environment or its personality?
  • Focus on the eyes: For most wildlife images, the subject's eyes need to be in critical focus, as that is the most powerful part of the image and where our own eyes naturally gravitate towards you. If you are going to focus elsewhere, make sure you have a creative reason for doing so (as opposed to sloppy focusing technique).
  • Background: The most distracting part of wildlife shots is often the background. We all pay careful attention to the subject, its placement in the frame and the lighting - and yet let a distracting or cluttered background detract from the impact of the image. Simple and blurred is typically best for animal portraits. Environmental shots need to show more of the animal's surroundings, but the background should harmonisze with the image's "statement." Careful choice of background - either through use of depth of field, or different angle of view, or different focal length - is what sets a great wildlife photo apart from a good one.
  • Composition: The rule of thirds and the use of diagonals are two techniques that greatly improve the impact of an image. Whether or not you fill the frame with the subject depends on what you want to shoot. Close-ups can be very powerful, especially as few people have seen most animals from real close. On the other hand, if your lens is not long enough for a tight shot, go for a shot with emphasizes the animal in its surroundings. Don't settle for the "subject as a small blob in the middle of the entire forest" approach. And feel free to break any and all of these guidelines if your vision so dictates.
  • Capture action: Go beyond the typical portrait - try to capture action: something that tells a story about the animal's life. Everyone has seen enough lion and tiger portraits. Not everyone has seen a lion or tiger interacting with a cub, or in a threat display. Go for shots that are beyond the obvious. These types of shots are not easy (that is why they are beyond the obvious, eh?), but with knowledge of your subject and time spent in observation, you will soon develop a sense of what is the essence of your subject.
  • Patience, and persevereance: You are not going to catch exciting behavior patterns within 5 minutes of stumbling upon your subject. Patience doesn't mean spending 10 minutes watching your subject. Patience means spending hours or days in observation - come rain, sun or snow - to get a shot that goes beyond the ordinary. Perseverance means dealing witth the possibility of not getting any great shots, and still coming back for more. Look at it this way: even if you don't get a great shot, you've just spent a day in nature's arms... beats the hell out of a day in the office, doesn't it? Enjoy what the wild gives you.
  • Stabilize your long lens: The old guideline for telephotos was that it was ok to handhold them as long as the shutter speed was equal to, or faster then, the inverse of the focal length of the lens. Thus, you'd handhold a 300mm lens at shutter speeds of 1/350 or faster. People often assume that this means that handholding under these conditions is equivalent to using a tripod. Not true. For most real world shutter speeds, regardless of whether it is faster or slower than the inversed focal length of the lens, a tripod is always better than handholding. If this is not practical, use a beanbag instead. IS or VR technology is great, but try not to rely just on that. A lot of people think IS or VR is a panacea - again, wrong. IS or VR will reduce the deleterious effects of handholding - but not get rid of them entirely (and I say this as an extensive IS user). A beanbag is more stable than IS. A tripod is more stable than a beanbag. This becomes apparent when you enlarge to 8x10, 11x14 or beyond. Proper shooting technique also plays a big role in improving image sharpness, as does using mirror lockup at shutter speeds of 1/10 to 1/30, when mirror slap has the biggest impact on image quality.
  • Use a flash: Flash, especially when coupled with a flash extender, is very helpful in reducing contrast range, filling in shadows and adding a catchlight to your subject's eyes -- which can salvage a photo where there is sunlight as well as deep shade. Practice until comfortable with your system's flash system, so that you know how much fill flash to add to get a balanced image.
  • Watch the light: The best wildlife photographs are taken early in the morning or late in the afternoon, when the sunlight is softest and everything is bathed in a warm glow. Sidelit images in this light have fantastic depth and texture. You can also experiment with backlighting for the "glowing fur" effect, which can really add mood to a photo. Mid-day is the worst time to take wildlife photos, as the light and shadows are very harsh, there is a lot of contrast and the wildlife is not very active.
  • Careful exposure: In landscape photography, it is easy to deal with difficult lighting: bracket exposures. It is harder to do that in wildlife photography. Let's say you are trying to capture an action sequence. There will be one decisive moment - and if you don't nail the exposure in the frame that captures that shot, you have missed the moment. So make sure you understand the working of your camera's meter, and know when/how to over-ride the camera's suggested settings and apply exposure compensation. Take a test shot first, to double-check. Digital helps big-time here.
  • Burn film/memory: Don't hesitate to keep shooting or to experiment. That is the best way to learn. If you see something interesting, shoot it using a variety of angles or focal lengths. Use that rapid-fire machine gun mode on your camera to capture action as it happens - you'll rarely have time to stop and think carefully while in the heat of things. Compare the cost of film or memory to what it cost you to buy your gear and get to the game park... doesn't seem like such a big deal anymore, does it?
  • Be selective with what you shoot: Contradictory? Nope. If there is an interesting photo op, don't hesitate to go to town with it. But if there is nothing to be had, don't bother: the photo ops won't get better with more shots. Burning a roll on a mid-day shot of a sleeping lion is going to give you 36 lousy photos, instead of 1. Also, don't just keep firing off images. Think about what you are trying to achieve and then takea shot (or a shot sequence) to achieve that.
  • There's more to wildlife photography than lions and tigers: So you didn't see any tigers in your last trip to the game park. Did you see any deer? Bison? Jackals? Birds? Butterflies? Lizards? Bugs? Flowers? All of these are potential subjects - make sure you look around at details, rather than fixate on the trophy animals. And if there are no game parks nearby, don't fret. There's always the zoo. Or the botanical garden. Or even the countryside, where a plethora of birds may be found.

That's the lot for now. Get out there and try these techniques! Remember - you only get better with practice.

 
     

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